Country Playhouse's Spelling Bee Buzzes with Appeal

The Setup

: Precocious little Logainne SchwartzandGrubenniere (Monica Passley) -- she has two dads, you see -- stands at the microphone in the middle school gymnasium where the spelling bee is held. Her word to spell is "strabismus," a squint caused by a defect in the eye muscles. She asks vice principal Panch (Kyle Ezer), who's in charge of reading the definitions, to use the word in a sentence. He replies in perfect deadpan: "In the schoolyard Billy protested that he wasn't cockeyed. 'I suffer from strabismus,' he said, whereupon the bullies beat him harder."

The Execution: This non-PC musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee is amazingly refreshing. Its theme is rather inconsequential when you come right down to it; sure, it's about winning and losing, but not about winners and losers. Maybe that's why it's so darned appealing.

Six middle school spellers compete "at the bee," augmented by four audience members (who've been chosen earlier in the evening), and "the adults": unflappable moderator Rona Lisa Perretti (Rachel Landon), aforementioned Panch, and Mitchell "Mitch" Mahoney (Tamara Siler), who's doing her community service by helping out. We get to know the other misfit kids as the musical progresses -- Boy Scout Chip (Marco Camacho) who gets distracted by a raging erection; flighty Leaf Coneybear (Chris Patton) who doesn't think he's smart, although he can spell without even thinking about it; William Barfee (Richard Solis), the know-it-all nerd who spells with his "magic foot;"; Olive Ostrovsky (Erin Stallings), who waits in vain for her dad to arrive and whose mom is off at an ashram; and Marcy Park (Emerald Harmon), who speaks six languages, plays Chopin and rugby, never cries, and is the classic overachiever. They're all looking for something -- acceptance for who they are, for a start -- and they all grow up a little under the fresh music and lyrics by William Finn (Falsettos, A New Brain) and the wickedly sly book by Rachel Sheinkin, who won a 2005 Tony Award for Best Book of a Musical. With spirited direction by O'Dell Hutchison and swinging musical direction by Jacob Carr, Country Playhouse makes the most of this minimal little showstopper.

The Verdict: Flawlessly performed, this production has a grand heart, a warm soul, and a breezy, winning style. I guess you could spell it F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C.

(Through March 12, Country Playhouse, 12802 Queensbury. 713-467-4497)

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